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The Quest for Spiritual Adulthood

This article was written on March 22, 2004 posted under Self-Help

After doing a few presentations about my book, Authentic Spirituality: The Direct Path to Consciousness, I am finding that people have become intrigued by my discussion of “spiritual adulthood.” While this term only appears briefly in the book, it is implicit in much of what I talk about. Several people have commented about the lack of such a concept in exoteric religions and even esoteric spiritual paths. It appears to me that when one places consciousness—not human-made organizations—at the center of spirituality, spiritual maturity emerges as the goal.

If one looks at religions and schools of spiritual study, we typically see some version of teachers and students. There is a tendency in the patriarchal approaches to define these hierarchical roles in familial ways; teachers seem a lot like parents and students seem a lot like children. Certainly there is more texture to these relationships than is readily apparent from this description. For example, in esoteric schools, except for the highest teacher everyone is a student—even though some of them are also teachers. People can carry both the roles of teacher and student (parent and child), depending upon to whom they are relating.

From my perspective, a spiritual teacher is like the captain of a ferry, who takes us from one side of a large river to the other. Where is the place for those who have reached the other side of the river? They have crossed the river, used the expertise of the captain, but still have further to travel to reach their goal. It is not the end of the journey but the beginning of a new stage. Now the traveler must traverse new territory and often must do it without the help of a guide. We can continue on because of what we have learned while journeying with the captain and those who helped us previously. Unlike the captain of a ferry, a teacher has also given us a boon, or gift, that keeps us connected with many who have traveled this road before us.

How have we come to believe that we must always be pupils and not graduate into adult relationship and responsibility? Why is it that we cling to the belief that we are forever sheep that need shepherding? We have evidence all around us that children grow up and leave home. Students graduate and begin to practice what they have learned. Apprentices become journeymen and go on to become master craftsmen. What has caused us to ignore this reality in our spiritual lives? When we place consciousness at the center of spirituality, as I have in my recent book, Authentic Spirituality: The Direct Path to Consciousness, it calls into doubt these old ways of structuring spiritual pursuit.

It isn’t difficult to figure out why the parent-child and teacher-student roles became associated with religious and spiritual development in the past. In pre-literate societies, the teachers/priests/shamans were those who had memorized the cultural stories and could share them with successive generations in the community. These elders not only knew the stories but had often experienced the life of spirit and could direct others from personal experience. Later, with the advent of writing, only a few were given the opportunity to venture into the mysterious world of literacy, and they belonged to the priestly or noble classes. These individuals held the “keys to the kingdom” for the vast majority of individuals in the society, because they could read and continue to preserve the cultural stories and secrets. However, with the advent of literacy it became less necessary for religious officials to have actually experienced spiritual depths; they could read about it and then share this second-hand knowledge with others.

Eventually the entire industry of organized religion began to guard access to its secrets and require periods of apprenticeship or study in order to be allowed to teach others and still the religious official need not have experienced that about which he was teaching. Mystical schools also developed where an older, oral tradition was maintained alongside the written traditions, and initiates into these mystical schools sometimes became teachers and shared the path with selected students.

An important message contained in Authentic Spirituality is that times are changing. In Western countries almost everyone can read and most of what used to be secret is now available to the general public. Unfortunately, much that is truly real gets lost in our culture since it relies on the written word to explain truth. Currently, many individuals are not only as educated as religious officials who are designated to be parental figures and dole out doctrine, but they are more educated. Priests, ministers, rabbis, and mullahs now face a struggle to convince us that they hold the keys to our spiritual lives. Among the mystical schools, the stories of the oral tradition can still be powerful—but they have been so become diluted and literalized by our materialistic culture that they are loosing their power.

There is still a crying need for inspired and inspiring teachers to share the mysteries of the path with others. There is also a huge need for people to live lives of soul and spirit. Living lives of soul and spirit means that people deepen and refine their consciousness. People such as these are needed to model for us how to begin this work. The great task of spirituality in this new age is to redefine the traditional understanding of teacher and student, parent and child, and to make much more room for the spiritual adult.

Much of my book, Authentic Spirituality, can be seen as a primer on spiritual adulthood. It is particularly by discussing “spiritual freedom” that we begin to see the process involved in attaining spiritual adulthood, which is the natural companion to spiritual freedom. Spiritual freedom requires that we have learned both to transcend our culture and live a good life within it. All truth requires the reconciliation of opposites and spiritual freedom is no exception. Transcending our culture means that we are no longer wearing our cultural blinders, made up of religious dogma, constricted consciousness, restricting concepts, and limited choices. It is also virtually impossible to live a human life without participation in the culture around us. When our individual consciousness becomes trained to be able to transcend our cultural viewpoints and at the same time partake in the teeming natural and cultural life around us, we have gained a degree of spiritual freedom. From this time forward we take on adult responsibilities for our own continued development and for the betterment of the world around us.

Spiritual freedom is the culmination of a long and arduous path and not the beginning (Potter, 2004). This is not what most people want to hear. We live in a society that wants things to be easy. When most of us hear about hard work, responsibility, and even adulthood, these things sound stifling and uninviting. We live in a society that holds youth to be the ideal state. Many children in the United States have little or no respect for the adults around them, most likely because the adults do not value adulthood. Adults would rather live a prolonged youth, avoiding adult choices and responsibilities. However, spiritual freedom requires us to go through a process of self-liberation where we rescue our true natures from the clutches of base ego desires and materialism of all kinds. Spiritual autonomy is not available to us when we remain wedded to our cultural addictions. We must use mastery, love, and will to transcend a previously adored state of spiritual childhood before we emerge into spiritual adulthood.

Is it worth it? That’s the real question. What is so great about spiritual maturity? I believe that the goal is worth the journey. I believe that the journey is also the goal, because the journey takes us through new realms of being and becoming, realms that in and of themselves are rewarding and exhilarating. I also do not want to neglect adulthood in general, because the truth is that being an adult in the lives of our families and communities can have much in common with being spiritual adults. It is only because we do not understand the benefits of maturity that we fear and avoid it. For a very long time the saturnian, joyless, patriarch or the depleted, overburdened employee have been our image of adulthood. When it is obvious that the whole purpose of life is to reach loving maturity and contribute to the well-being of our communities, we Western humans see drudgery. Where is our joy? Where is our love of life? Why do we forgo the emotional exhilaration of discovering the ever-unfolding life around us? Where is the peace that is found in fulfillment? Where is our gratitude for the mystery of life? These things, and many more, are the rightful inheritance of adulthood.

I have had the rare honor to have known several spiritual adults, and each has been quite different from the others. They also have had some similarities. I would like to create a new image of spiritual adulthood based upon the best qualities found in the spiritual adults I have known. I would like us to forget the stodgy authority figures of the past. We can move beyond an image of people too occupied with trivia to notice the beauty around them. If adulthood, responsibility, and maturity seem to us to be too limiting then we need to reevaluate our concepts. It is really our concepts, created by far too many years of repressive patriarchal, religious, political and economic rule that have indelibly imprinted a faulty view of both cultural and spiritual adulthood upon us.

Joy is universal among the wise. Joy is about being awake, and it seems to be impossible to be awake and not joyful. Joy is the natural state of the human heart, and as we awaken our heart, joy is the outcome (a time of healing may also be required). In a world that every day seems filled with more horror and ignorance, it seems incredible that spiritually awake individuals would be filled with joy, but that is typically the case. They are not blind to the ugliness of the world around them. They are in touch with the well-spring of joy within, and are therefore capable of seeing all the suffering, foolishness, and pain around them without becoming overwhelmed. They may become deeply concerned, sometimes outraged, by the cruelty of the ignorant, but they can remain centered in a joyful heart. The wise begin every action from their hearts and for this reason their actions can bring joy and light even into dark places.

We also see what we are attuned to see. When our hearts are filled with joy, we naturally are open to seeing the beauty, harmony, and depth of the exquisite life around us. How often have you noticed two people in the same situation and found that one saw mostly the beauty and the other saw mostly the problems? This is not so simple as to see one person as an eternal optimist and another as a pessimist. There is more at work here. Our consciousness becomes aware based upon what our heart is open to. When we are only open to sadness, our consciousness will extract sadness from the multiple possibilities in our environment. When our hearts are filled with joy we will extract joy from our environments. The spiritual adult will find reasons for joy all around and yet never be blind to the sadness.

Peace is the desire of the soul. It may be said that the entirety of life’s quest is a search for peace that is beyond understanding. Because of its nature, peace cannot be completely found in life. Perfect peace is complete stillness and reserved for a time outside of time and space, or deep states of meditation, referred to as samadhi by the yogis. Humans have a deep desire for certain states of peace that can be experienced in life. There is a quiet sense of contentment that can come with spiritual adulthood that can permeate one’s existence. A sense of no longer needing to prove anything, to strive to be better than others, or seek what is ultimately beyond our grasp, and the ability to know what is worth pursuing and what to let go, begins to accompany spiritual freedom and maturity. A peaceful heart becomes a balm not only for ourselves, but for all with whom we come in contact. Like a still lake whose calm surface only hints at the great depth that lies beneath, the heart of one who is spiritually mature can reflect the entire universe.

Yes, it is worth it to seek spiritual adulthood just as we need to value adulthood in our cultural lives. Who among us would not like to live our lives from a place of joy and peace? The outer world of the spiritually awake is often pretty much like anyone else’s, although one might perceive a little more thought and preparation. The inner world is where the difference lies. Joy and peace form the foundation and many other qualities are built from there. Qualities such as gratitude, love, wisdom, kindness, and magnanimity underpin the actions of the spiritual adult. There was a time when we thought that only gurus, high-priests and priestesses, prophets, and avatars could live such lives. Then what would be the purpose? Is it not more important than ever that as many of us as possible learn to live from a place of joy and peace?

When the time comes that we can see spiritual adulthood as attainable in this lifetime, when we can conceive of spiritual maturity as a natural state, then we will put aside the need to be shepherded like sheep or parented as children for our entire lives. We will not need to become teachers, father and mother figures to everyone we meet, or become inflated with a false sense of privilege. We will instead seek to learn and grow to adulthood so that we can take our rightful place in our families, communities, and societies. We will know that adulthood is normal and feel no need to be anything other than creative, joyful, and peaceful human beings.

Work Cited:
Potter, Richard N. (2004) Authentic Spirituality: The Direct Path to Consciousness. St. Paul: Llewellyn.


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